Hunting Reimagined: Expanding and Sustaining an Outdoor Tradition

  • Cover Story
  • Outdoor America
Young Hunters Care - credit Matt Lentsch

"I remember when I was too young to hunt sitting in the front window Friday night before the season, waiting for everyone to come up for opening weekend,” Mike Fuge recalls.

“There was the annual deer hunt where my Grandpa Fuge, uncles and cousins would get together and hunt for deer. My dad took the time to always get us outdoors for hunting, fishing and camping.”

Growing up with a family tradition helps explain a lifelong interest in hunting for people like Fuge. But many people don’t have that connection.

So now Fuge, 61, volunteers a lot of his time introducing nonhunters to those traditions.

A member of the Bill Cook Chapter and president of the Wisconsin Division of the Izaak Walton League, Fuge runs a program at the chapter called Learn to Hunt. With guidance from game wardens in Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and other groups, that program encourages people with little or no whitetail deer hunting experience to learn what it’s all about—from safety protocols to wildlife management.

Participants can be as young as 10, and each is paired with an experienced hunter as a mentor. The Bill Cook Chapter hosts the training clinic for new hunters at its property in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. The hunt occurs in nearby park land in partnership with the Portage County Parks Department.

Learn to Hunt has several goals, Fuge says. “We get to teach new hunters how to hunt deer, and we help the park reduce the population of deer on the landscape. If we get two or three participants to stay involved after their first experience—that’s a success.”

In 2023, the program at the Bill Cook Chapter hosted seven new hunters who harvested two antlerless deer and five bucks in the two-day hunt. “We limit the number of participants to seven so we can provide a safe learning experience.”

The program requires that all harvested deer be tested for chronic wasting disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that is fatal to deer and elk. While there are no known cases of people becoming infected with the disease by eating venison, infected animals should not be processed as food.

Fitting ancient tradition into the 21st century

Hunting is one of our oldest traditions—a hard-wired trait. Over millennia, exponential advances in hunting skills and technology have contributed to human dominance and the disappearance of many species across the globe.

Hunting serves a vital ecological role.

Very late in human history, we finally learned that some animals were being hunted to extinction or to the very brink. Thanks to enlightened hunters more than a century ago—and groups like the Boone and Crockett Club and the Izaak Walton League—we began to set aside forests, grasslands and wetlands to preserve wildlife, and we established rules to limit take and expand habitat.

Moreover, hunters and anglers championed passage of federal laws imposing excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and fishing equipment to fund wildlife restoration, habitat conservation and hunter education. The Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, passed in 1937, and the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act, passed in 1950, have collected and invested billions of dollars in conservation benefitting all Americans.

Yet hunters and anglers rarely get any credit for their role in providing funds to conserve and restore wildlife populations for many decades. While most Americans support legal hunting, fewer actually go hunting compared to previous decades. Only about six percent hunt, according to a 2022 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wildlife out of balance

For much of recent human history, people have prioritized eliminating predators that killed livestock and competed for wild game. In the United States, most large predators—bear, wolves and mountain lions—were hunted nearly out of existence. This misguided pursuit helped fuel an imbalance on the landscape. So, for instance, in places where white-tailed deer exceed the land’s carrying capacity, or ability to sustain the deer population, hunters serve an essential ecological role by keeping that population in check.

In 1944, conservationist Aldo Leopold was emmeshed in a debate about how to deal with starving deer herds in Wisconsin. Their northern forest habitat could not support the large population of deer. Leopold recommended more hunting and also a pause on the bounty that hunters were able to earn by shooting what he described as “the few remaining” wolves left in the state. At the time, Leopold was serving on the state’s Conservation Commission (which he had helped establish as an Izaak Walton League leader in 1927). Some hunters believed that wolves should have been hunted out of existence in the state.

In the midst of that 1944 deer-wolf debate, Leopold wrote his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” published in A Sand County Almanac, in which he pointed out the folly of eliminating wolves, which he had learned leads to an over-abundance of deer that will eat everything within their reach before dying of starvation. He wrote that “a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years,” but a local ecosystem “pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

Leopold was criticized for the appearance that he was siding with the wolves. He confided to a colleague that managing wildlife is easy compared to managing humans.

Deer populations vary from year to year depending on the weather, predation, available food and other factors. In a number of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, some hunters are dismayed by fewer deer harvested in the past few years (for instance, 30 percent fewer in the northern forest region of Wisconsin).

In suburban areas or farmland regions, reducing deer populations may be a priority for local farmers and wildlife managers. Over-browsing deer severely stunt new forest growth in many parts of the U.S. Also, deer eat a variety of crops—from sweet corn in Pennsylvania to cotton and soybeans in Georgia. In Pennsylvania, state lawmakers will consider several bills this year to enhance hunting as a way of reducing crop damage. One bill would provide an online tool to connect hunters with farmers who want help reducing their deer populations.

Recruit, retain, reactivate. Reimagine?

The Shotgun ConservationistFormer non-hunter Brant MacDuff says hunting protects public lands, supports sustainable ecosystems and fosters biodiversity, so it should appeal to environmentalists.

The shorthand is R3. For years, hunting, angling and shooting sports groups have provided guidance on how best to recruit new participants, retain those currently engaged and reactivate those who have stopped or paused.

But maybe we should add another “R” for reimagine.

In his book The Shotgun Conservationist, former nonhunter Brant MacDuff writes, “It’s not just new hunters that need to be brought into the community—it’s new hunting allies. Frankly, they’re even more important.”

“Adopt a nonhunter,” he advises. The list of attributes associated with hunting may establish some common ground with nonhunters. Hunting:

  • supports habitat and conservation programs
  • celebrates a healthy environment
  • provides a healthy source of food.

MacDuff says eating deer or other game is the most environmentally friendly way to eat meat.

Like the farm-to-table trend of eating locally grown food, there is an equally compelling field-to-table idea that eating wild game is sustainable, responsible and healthy. The National Deer Association calls their venison version of that idea “field to fork.”

“The money spent to hunt goes back to protect the environment,” via the Pittman-Robertson tax that supports wildlife, “and the animal has gotten to live its most natural life,” MacDuff writes.

What about those hunting photos? To the person in the photo, it depicts hunters and their quarry. To some nonhunters, the photos depict a person celebrating the needless death of a wild creature.

MacDuff makes an interesting point. Is that photo really the whole story? Aren’t there other images that might capture the event? Images could focus on the journey through wild places, scouting the landscape, camaraderie, the garb and gear, a campfire or beverage at the end of the day. Or wildlife that are not dead.

Reboot a family tradition

Where there is an opportunity to get an individual interested in hunting, “get the whole family involved,” Mike Fuge advises. Participation by kids from nonhunting families in the Learn to Hunt program typically does not provide a lasting connection—unless the parents also participate.

Get the whole family involved.

“If we get parents or young families involved, along with their child, they experience and learn how to hunt with their own mentor. We have had several families and also young adults participate and continue to hunt after going through the program.

“When the participant is able to spend time in the woods scouting, learning what to look for and spending time on the [shooting] range with their mentor, it is a big plus. In 2023, the mentors spent almost 400 hours in the woods and on the range with their hunters. Without volunteers like this the program would not be as successful as it is.”

Refine success, cultivate confidence

In natural resource agencies in states throughout the U.S., managers are working to engage more people in outdoor traditions. Hunting and angling advocates are trying to eliminate barriers and make these activities more accessible across all demographic groups.

Consider gender. In Maine, the proportion of female hunters has grown by 30 percent since 2012. With that bump, about 17 percent of women in the Pine Tree State have a hunting license, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Hoping to get more women involved, the department is trying to reduce some of the barriers they have identified:

  • low representation of women in advertising about outdoor adventure
  • a culture that is not inclusive
  • limited outdoor gear available for women.

So to invite more women into outdoor recreation broadly, the department tailors its messages and programs to that audience with:

  • authentic photos across all media depicting women engaged in outdoor traditions
  • women instructors and women-only hunter-education programs
  • a podcast featuring women’s experience learning hunting and outdoor skills
  • goals for increasing confidence, comfort and competence.

How we define success for an outdoor experience also makes a difference. The Maine agency says the yardstick for a successful deer hunt should not be limited to bagging a 10-point buck. (The success rate for bagging a deer in Maine is about 13 percent.) Instead, they define a successful hunt broadly: spending more time connecting with nature, making memories and improving outdoor skills.

Hunting as a community service

What if you could attract young hunters motivated to help stock the local food bank? Hunting as a way to put food on the table for hungry families. That’s the idea Matt Lentsch put to the test in 2007 in Worland, Wyoming, when he started Young Hunters Care, which focused on teens who were not hunters. His program had 10 participants who harvested a deer that year. Lentsch is a game warden for the state, and his program caught on.

Fast forward to 2021. To reduce some of the complications related to testing deer for chronic wasting disease and the required processing of venison at a federally inspected facility, Lentsch now takes advantage of the state’s Food from the Field program, which oversees safe processing of venison, simplifying the meat donation process. This allowed him to expand his group of youth, which harvested two dozen deer and produced 650 pounds of venison for food banks in 2022.

Damage to corn crops by deer in Wyoming is another factor behind support for the program. Lentsch tells Outdoor America that Young Hunters Care focuses on harvesting does rather than bucks. Seeking licenses to take antlerless deer helps ensure that all the youth get an opportunity to hunt, he says. The Wyoming Game Wardens Association pays for the licenses for the young hunters, reducing one more barrier to getting involved.

At the end of our conversation, Lentsch reveals the perhaps surprising secret sauce. “If the kids can cut it up,” that seals the deal. If the participants can see the process all the way through, from hunting to processing the meat and delivering food, that’s a powerful experience for some of them.

In fact, that’s what students do in Darin DeNeal’s agriculture class. As a part of the class, he teaches kids how to safely process a deer at the high school in Carrier Mills, Illinois. Participation is not a requirement for the class, and as a precaution, he only uses deer he has personally harvested and the meat goes home with him. But it’s a popular activity. The activity literally touches on anatomy, biology and food science as well as sustainable use of natural resources.

Father and daughter hunt in the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge - credit USFWSFather and daughter hunt in the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

"I hunt religiously now"

He’s not from a hunting family, but after Andy Riesterer went through the Learn to Hunt program in Wisconsin with Mike Fuge as his mentor, he now hunts “religiously,” he tells Outdoor America. He and his college roommate went through the program together in 2016, and they both continue to hunt.

Riesterer now also goes fishing, hunts turkey and takes his German short-haired pointer out to hunt upland birds in the Green Bay region. And he has a freezer full of food to prove it. He and his wife don’t need to spend a lot of money on meat.

Riesterer has served in the National Guard, so using firearms was not a hurdle. But he has taken to bow and muzzleloader hunting as well as ice fishing to make weekends interesting. In recent years, he has introduced those outdoor activities to about a dozen other people.

Taking a cue from his mentor, he goes out of his way to make sure they have a good experience in the outdoors.

Bigger than any of us

Andrew McKean, Hunting Editor for Outdoor Life, describes the outdoors as “beautiful, generous, restorative and bigger than any of us.” While it’s not always easy to introduce people to America’s outdoor traditions, McKean notes, “the infrastructure of American conservation—our state fish-and-game agencies, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands and national parks, our college resource-management programs, accessible public parcels, campgrounds with fire rings and communities like the Ikes—is built and ready to inspire a new generation of participants.”

The Face of Hunting and Shooting Sports

The 2022 Special Report on Hunting and the Shooting Sports, published by the Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports, provides a snapshot of Americans ages six and older who participated at least once in a hunting or target shooting event with firearms or archery equipment in 2021. The report looks at trends in motivations, barriers and preferences. A few highlights follow:


  • “For food” was the number-one motivation for hunting
  • 68 percent of hunters were introduced to hunting by a family member
  • 49 percent of hunters first participated before the age of 18
  • 27 percent of participants were female, up from 16 percent a decade ago
  • Share of hunters who were Black or Hispanic increased 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively, on average for the past 3 years

Firearms Target Shooting

  • “For recreation” was the number-one motivation for target shooting
  • 32 percent of participants were female, up from 25 percent a decade ago
  • Share of target shooters who were Black or Hispanic increased 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively, on average for the past 3 years
  • “High cost” was the number-one barrier reported for target shooting

Archery Target Shooting

  • “For recreation” was the number-one motivation for target shooting
  • 39 percent of participants were female, the highest since 2016
  • Archers are slightly more diverse than firearms target shooters
  • 19 percent of participants shot solely on public property/ranges

Top photo: Providing venison to a local food bank is a key aspect of Young Hunters Care, a program created by Game Warden Matt Lentsch, based in Worland, Wyoming. Credit: Matt Lentsch.